Academic journal article Journal of Sociological Research

Recent Trends in Gender Wage Inequality in the United States

Academic journal article Journal of Sociological Research

Recent Trends in Gender Wage Inequality in the United States

Article excerpt

Abstract

In this review article, I focus on the changing trends and main explanations of gender wage inequality in the United States. First, I briefly describe the most prominent trends in gender wage inequality since the end of the 1970s. I then summarize theoretical explanations of these trends at both the individual level and the structural level. At the individual level, neoclassical human capital theory highlights the sharp increase in women's educational attainment as the reason for the narrowing trend in the gender pay gap, while using the gender differences in educational and work experience to explain the persistence of this gap. An emerging debate about the human capital explanation is whether the observed gender disparities in educational and work experiences are the result of individuals' personal choices or the consequences of social construction. I subsequently numerate three main sociological theories-gendered socialization, statistical discrimination, and social capital-to show how social values, conventions, and systems shape individuals' "free" choices. At the structural level, I emphasize the fundamental shift in the industrial structure and employment arrangements driven by the skill-biased technology change (SBTC) and globalization. I conclude this article by summarizing both the positive and the worrisome trends in gender wage inequality, and by outlining policy implications for achieving gender equity in the future development of the U.S. labor market.

INTRODUCTION

Until the late 1970s and early 1980s, the female-to-male earnings ratio-the ratio of the median annual earnings of women who worked year-round, full-time and the median annual earnings of comparable men (Roos and Gatta 1999)-had remained constant at around 60 percent in the U.S. labor market (Blau and Kahn 2007). Since then, the ratio has changed dramatically. Despite some variation in the pace of change, the past three decades have witnessed a significant increase in the ratio of women's earnings to men's earnings. According to scholarly observations (Blau and Kahn 2007; Leicht 2008), the overall gender gap in earnings decreased by approximately 20 percent from the end of 1970s to the first decade of the current century, as women's average earnings increased from around 60 to 80 percent of men's average earnings during this period. Decoding the recent trends in gender wage inequality is important because it facilitates an understanding of the intricate, multi-faceted change in the labor market in recent decades, particularly in the context of the deepening inequality in the U.S. labor market (Blau and Kahn 2007).

In this review article, I first highlight the most prominent trends in gender wage inequality since the end of 1970s. I then explore the possible theoretical explanations of these trends at both the individual level and the structural level. At the individual level, the dominant explanations derive from human capital theory, which describes two factors that affect these trends. First, in the United States, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to women has outpaced the number awarded to men since the early 1980s (Buchmann and DiPrete 2006), indicating that higher education has indeed played an important role in the narrowing gender pay gap. However, gender differences still exist in the selection of colleges and universities, public versus private educational institutions, and more importantly, majors. As a result, the different educational paths resulting from these selections channel men and women into jobs with different starting salaries, and also lead them to different opportunities to access on-the-job training. An emerging debate among proponents of the human capital theory centers on whether the observed gender disparities in educational paths and on-the-job training opportunities are the result of individuals' personal choices or the consequences of discrimination.

At the structural level, the skill-biased technology change (SBTC) and globalization have triggered fundamental changes in the industrial structure, employment relations, and skill requirements of occupations. …

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